One Who Wrote Alone
compiled by Ed Waterman
A Comprehensive collection of notes, quotes and excerpts on and about Robert E. Howard’s writing from One Who Walked Alone
This article is a collection of notes, quotes, and excerpts from Novalyne Price-Ellis’ memoir about Robert E. Howard, One Who Walked Alone. The idea for this article was born out of my desire to have a easy reference source, or at least an easier reference source, for information regarding Robert E. Howard’s views on his work, on his writing methods, and on the business of writing in general.
In compiling this collection, one of my goals was to gather together a complete, comprehensive collection of excerpts that assembled every mention of Howard’s writing found within the book, One Who Walked Alone. I considered compiling only short sentences that would lend themselves to dramatic uses in books or articles, or perhaps appropriate for sound-bites, but found that much of the meaning was lost when the surrounding text was excised. Therefore, in order to retain the meat of the quotes and to allow this resource to be used for scholarly purposes, I’ve erred on more rather than less. In some cases, I’ve excerpted entire pages! I am confident that those of you who are looking for pithy quotes will be able to find them within this collection.
Naturally, any collection such as this that assembles quotes and excerpts requires the editor to make choices regarding what text to include and what text to ignore, and these choices sometimes reflect the views and opinions of the editor. I’ve made every effort to strive against this tendency and to make this collection as objective and unbiased as possible by collecting every bit of text that mentions Howard’s writing, including, to the best of my ability, any text necessary to retain the meaning and depict the context in which the quotes were made.
For the sake of comprehensiveness, I’ve also included a few excerpts that illustrate some of the major themes found in Howard’s stories. I felt that some themes played a large part in the shaping of Howard’s writing style and the nature of the stories themselves, and that these themes should be included. However, I would be remiss if I were to state that listed here are all of the themes depicted in Howard’s work that could be found in One Who Walked Alone. As far as themes are concerned, this listing contains only a sampling of the many important themes found within the book.
I feel obligated to offer a note of caution to the prospective reader. Although Novalyne Price-Ellis’ book, One Who Walked Alone, is a memoir of considerable reliability and weight, some of the quotes and attitudes attributed to Robert E. Howard are contradicted in Howard’s own letters and even, to some extent, contradicted in his work. One Who Walked Alone is a primary source of biographical information on Robert E. Howard’s life, but it should not be taken as absolute gospel. Any information contained in the book, and this article, should be carefully weighed with information from other primary biographical sources, such as letters or other historical documents, before it would be appropriate to draw any conclusions about Howard’s personality, interests, or life. There is no substitute for thorough research or carefully considered judgment. This warning is especially pertinent to Robert E. Howard’s life and work, as an excessive amount of past promoters, editors, adaptors, and even fans of Howard’s literature have allowed themselves the indiscretion of prejudiced thought, unchecked assumptions, sloppy research methods, and in many cases considerable naivetÃ©. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind while reading these excepts is that Robert E. Howard was an extraordinarily complex individual with human dreams, conflicting emotions, and all of the other baggage we real, living people carry with us.
After assembling this collection, I was struck with how significant these quotes are to acquire an accurate understanding of the man, Robert E. Howard. After reading these bits of memory, I was impressed with the idea that the man and the writer were one and the same, inexorably tied together and inseparable. As much as Howard’s stories owed their identity to their author, these excerpts illustrate that Howard owed who he was to writing — that, in my humble opinion, being a writer was a major part of his self-image. In short, one might simply say that in every sense of the word, Howard was… a writer.
Excerpts and Quotes
“Well, I agree with you that you have to practice,” Bob said, “and so I practice too, but not the way you seem to. I read magazines I want to write for, and-” “The pulps,” Clyde put in.
“Yeah, the pulps. A lot of writers get their start there. They don’t pay much, a half-cent a word, and so you have to stretch your yarns to the breaking point. You take a hundred words to say twenty-five. But that’s okay with me. I’m verbose. I’ve got plenty of words.”
“Do you try to write like the guys who write for the magazines you write for?” Clyde asked.
“Hell, no,” Bob was emphatic about that. “I let them try to write like me.”
Clyde nodded with appreciation.
“I thought you had to practice a style,” I said.
“In a way,” Bob agreed. “After I read a lot of issues of a magazine to get the feel of what the readers want and of the things the editors look for, I sit down at my old trusty typewriter and bang out a yarn I think fits the pattern. Then I send â€˜em off. Some of â€˜em come back. If they’ve been the rounds, I throw â€˜em in an old trunk I have. Someday, they’ll sell, and I’ll be rich and famous.”
“Bob sometimes spends as much as eighteen hours a day at the typewriter.” Clyde told me. “You call that pressing the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
“Do you begin with a character or with a description of a place or with a plot?’ I asked.
Bob thought a minute. “Every way, but mostly with a character, I suppose. I’ve got a character going now-” “Conan, the Barbarian,” Clyde interrupted. “A ruthless barbarian who loves, fights, and battles the supernatural.”
Bob took off his cap and twisted it in his hands. His eyes were smiling.
“That Conan’s the damndest bastard I ever saw. He gets himself into all kinds of scrapes. I sure don’t try to give him advice when he tells me all that junk. I just sit back and listen.”
“Do you know what he’s telling you?” Clyde said to me. “He’s telling you that a real character has a mind of his own, even in a story.”
I didn’t say anything to them, of course, and I certainly wouldn’t want them to know what I was thinking. I thought: Who cares about barbarians or what a barbaric-bastard-does? It’s real people-real live people-I want to write about.
“You wouldn’t like Conan,” Bob said to me.
“I might,” I said. “I’d like to read some of your stories about him. Where can I find them?”
He looked pleased. “Weird Tales publishes most of my stuff.”
— pg. 20
I could hear the sound of a typewriter and someone talking at the very top of his voice. It sounded as if somebody were reading a book while someone else typed. I stood at the door, listening. Bob was writing and talking at the top of his voice as he wrote.
— pg. 45
“Yeah. I was writing when you came in. Didn’t you hear me?”
We both laughed. “Do you always tell your stories as you write them?”
Again, he ran his fingers through his hair. “A hell of a noise, wasn’t it? Well, yeah, I do. I find that if I talk them out — hear the words as I put them down, the yarn goes a little smoother. Sounds better when you read it.”
“I know what you mean,” I said eagerly. “The voice brings words to life.”
“That’s right,” he said. “You’re absolutely right. And back to this selling bit, and you don’t write unless you sell, I’m working on a Conan yarn now. I don’t know whether it will sell or not, but I’m working on it. I figure the law of averages will give you sales if you keep pounding them out.”
“I write slowly. It takes me more than a month to ‘pound out’ one and another couple of weeks to get it typed.”
“You’ll have to learn to write faster than that. Maybe even two or three a week, depending on the length.”
— pg. 47-48
He talked then about his character Conan and the scrapes he’d gotten himself into. “That’s the damndest bastard… the damndest bastard who ever was.”
— pg. 50
“I’ve tried confessions a little,” Bob said, smiling at me. “I always thought there was a kind of formula to them. I thought you sinned, suffered, and repented.”
– pg. 61
He nodded emphatically. “And against a strange pagan god. But that’s my formula — man struggling to survive in an elemental way. Life and death in a new world.”
– pg. 62
“I don’t think you’re going to like ol’ Conan. His struggle is big, uncomplicated with civilized standards. The people who read my stuff want to get away from this modern, complicated world with its hypocrisy, its cruelty, its god-eat-dog life. They want to go back to the origin of the human race. The civilization we live in is a hell of a lot more sinister than the time I write about. In those days, girl, men were men and women were women. They struggled to stay alive, but the struggle was worth it.”
He described the land, the colors of Jenghiz Khan’s robes, the horse he rode. As I listened, I knew what Jenghiz Khan experienced and thought. But I understood as one who plays a part in a play; you study the man. . . You study the role . . . You try to understand and experience him; then you try to reveal him to an audience. But in the final analysis, on stage, you create the illusion of reality. Bob was not acting. He was there. At that moment, he was Jenghiz Khan, the barbarian, conqueror of an empire.
It overwhelmed me. “How do you know so much about him-Jenghiz Khan? History books don’t tell you these things. History books don’t describe. They recount.”
“I was there, girl.” Exultantly. “I rode with Jenghiz Khan.”
At first, I didn’t know what to think. Then I reasoned about it. I thought: We must talk about reincarnation someday. I don’t believe it, of course, but we must talk about it. He probably doesn’t believe it either. No wonder a few people in Cross Plains don’t like him. They don’t understand him. His preoccupation with history and with writing instead of the price of corn and cotton is something they could not understand Could I? I liked to talk about books. . . History. . . Writing. Well, this was an opportunity to listen to a very interesting storyteller! Did I want this?
I listened to the saga of Jenghiz Khan.
– pg. 64-65
“Bob,” I interrupted, finally, “don’t you ever write about modern times? Modern heroes? Do you always write about barbarians-about past history?”
“Sure,” he said. “I write about several other characters. Stephen Costigan, John-” “What kind of problems do they face?”
He laughed. “Magic. Voodoo. Oriental magic.”
I shivered. “Why problems like that? Why not just a plain, ordinary problem like: â€˜When the cotton’s picked this fall, I’ll get a new car. But, then, cotton’s just five cents a pound. How can I get the car? You know what I mean-the kind of problem a man would face in 1932.”
“You don’t like to read about magic? Voodoo? Why, girl, that’s one of man’s oldest problems.”
– pg. 65
“I’ve been trying to pound out another yarn.”
“Another Conan story?”
“Yeah, but this may be my last one. I’m getting a little tired of Conan.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arm. “This country needs to be written about. There are all kinds of stories around here.” He turned to look at me for the first time tonight. “What have you been doing besides teaching school . . . As if that wasn’t enough?”
— pg. 77
“When you tell a story and someone listens to it, you are really publishing it. Then when you sit down to write, it just doesn’t come. You’re not excited about it anymore. You’re not trying to discover something new. I mean, of course, that’s the way it works for me. Maybe it wouldn’t work that way with you. No two people write exactly alike. But I don’t usually give advice. If you want to tell me your story, go ahead.”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “When you tell somebody something, the creativeness flows out in the telling.”
He was smiling now. More good-humored. More the way I liked him to be. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve done exactly what I’m telling you not to do, but when I do it, the yarn always comes out wooden. Not easy, flowing, light.”
– pg. 77
Bob nodded sympathetically. “That’s how it works for me.”
“Didn’t you and Clyde write some stories together?”
“Yeah. But it’s not the same thing as telling your story to someone,” he said. “With another person, you exchange ideas. Bounce them back and forth. Plan them.”
“Do you always outline your stories?”
“Absolutely.” He paused, thinking. “Oh, once in a while, I put a sheet of paper in my typewriter and start out and get where I’m going with no outline at all. But the way I explain such things is that it’s either been gestating in my mind, or I have lived it or knew about it in some other life.”
On a dark, lonely road with the stars dim and far away, reincarnation was not a topic I wanted to explore. He settled back in his seat. “I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. Most of the yarns I write are planned very carefully, and they’re complete with a detailed outline.”
I asked him what he meant by a detailed outline, and I gathered from what he said that he made notes and arranged them in order. But it was not the way I outlined history or one of my speeches. He said his outline helped him to know his characters, what they wanted, and where they were going. The outline helped for it made the yarn stick in his mind. Then when he sat down at the typewriter, he went straight through the story. Even so, it took a big wastebasket to hold the pages he threw away.
– pg. 78
Then I asked him if he thought I should have a particular boy in mind as I wrote.
His answer was interesting. He laughed. “No, but if somebody asks you where you get your characters. . . And they’re sure to do that. . . You always say, â€˜He’s a combination of a lot of people I have known.’ That way, if your character is a damn fool, nobody will want to identify with him.” He stopped talking for a minute and ran his hand through his hair. “To tell the truth, I don’t know how a man gets a character for a story, anymore than I know how he falls in love. I don’t know if his characters spring full-blown from his head, or if he sees a man walking down the street and recognizes him instantly.” He looked at me, frowning. “I doubt any writer knows for sure where his characters come from.”
– pg. 78-79
Bob said he didn’t like that sort of philosophic wondering in the things he wrote. His readers wanted action. Don’t stop. Don’t analyze. Don’t philosophize. Act. Feel. Act.
– pg. 83
“Some damn editor don’t know that those eastern lace-on-their-draw — uh — underpants-fox-hunters would be scared to death out there in this wild country. This country is rich in stories. Write about it. There are enough stories here for you and me and a hundred other writers, and we’d never get it all said. This is the place to be. Most people don’t stop to think about it, but west Texas is older than east Texas.”
– pg. 105
Something he really liked, he said, was the background for the story. It was just there. The fox hunt, he went on, was absolutely true to the way men in this part of the country hunted foxes, but, being of low mentality and with lace on their you-know-whats, editors couldn’t appreciate that. He suggested that he write to Kline for me and see what Kline thought. At times, Kline seemed like a good, intelligent man who agreed with him on almost everything. Personally, he knew that Kline agreed with him that editors were all bastards, but you had to deal with them.
– pg. 106
I also went over and over the line “The background is just there.” He said a lot of people thought they had to explain where a person was, how the moon looked, the flowers, the grass, the trees, but the best background was just there.
I thought about his story “The Devil in Iron.” Hadn’t he described in detail how the castle looked to the fisherman? I was not trying to argue; I was trying to understand.
He talked on for nearly a page about stories in general-something, he said, I might think about. One thing he wanted to stress was that stories had to be real and important; the characters-real people with real problems, important problems. He was sure, he said (and he was right), that I wondered how Conan could be a real person, but I needed to remember that deep inside every man there was something of the barbarian, something that civilization could not destroy. A man reading his story about Conan, then, would feel again in the depth of his being those barbaric impulses; consequently, Conan acted as they felt they would act in similar circumstances.
– pg. 106-107
Writing was like eating onions; the more you did, the better you liked it. Some day, soon, he was sure I’d find an appreciative editor. But the secret, he said, was to write, write, write.
– pg. 107
“Writing is pounding out one damn yarn after another, pounding them out whether you want to or not, and it takes a family who understands that and who tries to help you by keeping you from being disturbed every minute of the day. I know people think I’m a freak and a damn nut, but the only way I can get anything done is to keep pounding away.”
– pg. 115
Now, I’m learning what a writer does to get ready for the next story or book. This spell between “yarns” has lasted for some three or four weeks now and, it seems to me, it is driving Bob up the wall. He’s written some, he says, but before he gets half-way through a story, he destroys it. When that happens, he goes back to doing research, planning, thinking, dreaming. He calls it-filling the reservoir.
– pgs. 142-143
Some people might think that Bob is just loafing around and not working at anything at all. But that’s not true. His mind is hard at work. Although he doesn’t get too far from home, he drives around over the country, thinking of stories, talking them out loud to himself. He’ll stop the car on some little hill, get out and walk around, listening to the wind blowing across the prairies. He says that on the wind he hears the tuneless little whistles the cowboys made as they rode, stretching themselves now and then, throwing a leg over the saddle horn to ride sideways to relieve the strain, being almost unseated when the horse shied at a prairie-dog or a rattle snake. These are the things he wants to write about … someday.
While he’s riding around in the country, he may see an old man sitting on a porch by himself. Bob stops the car, gets out and visits with the old man, just to hear his stories of the country when it was new and fresh and uncluttered with the trappings of civilization.
He reads history, too — the history of this country, about the settling of it. The other night, he told me the story of a Negro slave, who escaped from his masters back in Alabama or Georgia, made his way out here to the wilds of Texas and became a cowboy. According to what Bob has been able to learn from his research, the man made a damn good cowboy.
– pg. 143
Bob’s been to Comanche, Coleman and Santa Anna, hunting stories, old books. Anything he can find. He’s been to newspaper offices to go through old files, hunting stories and the things that interested the people. He’s filling the reservoir with these things, he says, so that someday soon, he can spend all his time writing about this country.
He’s sold some stories about it. He brought me one the other day. I didn’t read it all. Just the first paragraph. That paragraph was wonderful for setting the stage. It also hinted at some horror that was about to take place. Horror stories like that upset me. He also brought a recent magazine with a Conan story in it, I read two paragraphs in that one. I wasn’t about to read of a lurid light with a human head in it. I’d hate to have a nightmare, wake up, and see a light with a woman’s head in it!
I’m glad he’s going to write more about this country. I think it’s a great country too, and I’ll look forward to reading his stories about it so long as they’re not filled with horrible events. I like this modern day country with its schools, churches, dressing up on Saturday and going to town to shop and talk with friends. I like a party during the week. All such things that Bob says no self-respecting cowboy or Indian would have any use for.
He says that the hero he likes best is a cowboy who is a little bit larger than life. But, then, all of Bob’s heroes are somewhat larger than life. His cowboys are dumb too. He says they are real live, flesh and blood characters whom he knows on a first name basis. I doubt that. Most of the characters he knows on a first name basis are Clyde Smith, Truett Vinson, Dave Lee and Lindsey Tyson. They’re not big and dumb.
Though Bob is not one to mix with people, he’ll start conversations with strangers when he’s trying to find a story.
He also hunts through stores for books. He found one the other day in Brownwood that has him in ecstasy. It was written by a captain of the Texas Rangers, and is about the early exploits of the Rangers. The book is a reprint of one published years ago. [...] Besides reading old newspapers, Bob stands on the street corner or sits on a bench on the courthouse square to talk with some old men.
– pg. 144
He said he thought writers carried the lives of their former ancestors in their memories, memories of which they were not consciously aware, but which made wonderful stories.
“These memories probably go back a thousand years.” He looked at me half laughing, half serious. “Have you ever read something in ancient history and suddenly felt that you knew that place? That you’d seen that event happen? Did you ever have a vivid picture of some incident in history that involved Indians, and you felt you had seen it, knew all about it?”
– pg. 148
“Now, there!” He banged the steering wheel excitedly. “By God, that’s one of your ancestral memories. That’s what you ought to write about. That’s your story. You listen to that. Dream about it. Let it come through, and you’ve got the right story.
— pg. 148
“By God, girl.” His voice boomed out cheerfully. “In this writing game, you have to read as much or more than you write. You’ve got to read the magazines you want to write for and the ones you do write for.” He stopped and looked at me, smiling. “Do you read the confessions?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t read them from cover to cover and practically memorize them the way you do the magazines you want to write for. I don’t like the confessions much.”
“Well, for God’s sake,” he laughed. “How in the hell do you think you can write for them? You have to read ‘em to write ‘em. At least, I do.”
“Oh, I buy a confession now and then,” I admitted. “When I find something in it that looks halfway interesting, I skim through it. I get the jist of what the story’s about.”
“That doesn’t seem to me to be the way to do,” Bob said with a touch of amusement in his voice. “I mean it wouldn’t work for me. I don’t pretend to be able to tell you what to do. What works for one won’t work for another. It just seems to me that you’ve got to study the magazines you want to write for. I mean study them. Tear each yarn apart. Put it together again. Try to figure out why that one sold and yours didn’t.”
He stopped talking for a minute, reached over and playfully pulled my hat down over one of my eyes. Before I could hit him, he went on talking.
“Now, a friend of mine wrote a yarn a few years ago. It was one of the greatest yarns I ever read. I think about it a lot. Sometimes when I finish a yarn and am getting another one ready, I think about that yarn of his, and why I think it was good. Sometimes I sit at my typewriter and think about it. I think about it on my way to and from the post office. Why, girl, I even think about that yarn when I go out to milk the cow. As I think about it, I begin to have my own thoughts and ideas. Maybe there was something I believe about life that he didn’t say.”
I caught at the phrase “believe about life.” Bob went on talking about how great that yarn was, but I was deep in my own thoughts. Maybe Bob had put his finger on what was wrong with my stories. Most of them were pretty thin. I could see that now. I wrote: Girl sees boy; girl wants boy; girl gets boy. What was I saying about life? Was I saying that a woman in love always gets her man? That wasn’t true and I knew it.
– pg. 150-151
“All I wanted to know was what kind of comment about life does he make?” I asked. “And I want to know what kind of comment you make about life in your Conan stories.”
Bob began to talk about good and evil in life. He said that life was always a struggle between good and evil, and people like to read about that struggle. He said that even though the Conan sagas were set in a prehistoric time, Conan often faced the same kind of evil and decadence we faced today.
He said that he wasn’t about to write those psychological yarns that sophisticated, half-educated people went for. No. He wrote for readers who wanted evil to be something big, horrible, but still something a barbarian like Conan could overcome. Evil could be found in another person who was about to kill you, or it could be found in a different race of people, a witch, a ghost, or some manifestation of the supernatural.
“These damn pseudo-scientific writers of today who try to explore a man’s inner mind ain’t worth a damn. Evil, they say, lurks inside a man. I hate the damn bastards who write stuff like that, because every decent impulse a man has is given a dirty meaning by these damn sons-of-bi– guns. A man loves his poor old sick mother, and those damn bastards call it the ‘Oedipus complex.’ A doctor goes to see an attractive sick woman, and it’s portrayed as lust.”
– pgs. 151-152
“I sold Wright a yarn like that a few months ago.” He turned and looked at me, his eyes turbulent. “I’m damned surprised he took it. It’s different from my other Conan yarns … no sex … only men fighting against the savagery and bestiality about to engulf them. I want you to read it when it comes out. It’s filled with the important little things of civilization, little things that make men think civilization’s worth living and dying for.”
– pg. 178
“… Damn it, girl, if you make a living writing for the pulps, you don’t have time to go to pink teas.”
– pg. 179
He began to rave and rant, and I had a hard time getting him back on the story he’d sold to Wright — the one which, he said, was not the usual Conan story.
He was excited about it because it was about this country and it sold! He had a honing to write more about this country, not an ordinary cowboy yarn, or a wild west shoot ‘em up, though God knew this country was alive with yarns like that waiting to be written. But in his heart, he wanted to say more than that. He wanted to tell the simple story of this country and the hardships the settlers had suffered, pitted against a frightened, semi-barbaric people — the Indians, who were trying to hold on to a way of life and a country they loved. Since he’d met me, he didn’t feel so bad about Indians. But a novel depicting the settlers’ fear as they tried to carve out a new life, and the Indians’ fear as they tried to hold on to a doomed country; why, girl, all that would make the best damn novel ever written about frontier life in the Southwest.
Suddenly, he shook his head. Such a book probably never would be accepted as a great novel or even a good one. He said that two-bit, sophisticated, pseudo-intellectual critics would never consider a novel about this part of the country as a great novel. The damn fools.
“Write it anyway,” I said placatingly. “Tell the critics to go to hell.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I wouldn’t say this to anybody but you, but, by God, I know what I can do. I love this country, and I know damn well I can write about it. I know damn well I can write a novel that will move, be about people facing real odds.” He became exuberant. “I tried that yarn out to see what Wright would do about it. I was afraid he wouldn’t take it, but he did! By God, he took it!”
He turned to face me again, still smiling, interested in the things he wanted to do. “I’ll be better to the Indians in this novel than I was in that yarn. I’ll have a beautiful, fully dressed Indian girl in it. I know how you feel, and I agree with you. The Indians deserve better treatment than they get. I’ll have the hero fall in love with that beautiful Indian girl. He’ll be a white man: a morose, ungainly, misfit among men, but his neighbors-” “Why does he have to be an ungainly misfit? Couldn’t he be a big, handsome, kind, wonderful man?”
He laughed, the first time today he’d really laughed.
“By God, you’re still a dreamer. Romance! He’s got to be handsome! Okay, by God, we’ll make him the most handsome man in the west with the fastest gun.”
– pgs. 179-180
Bob shook his head. “You don’t know my father very well.”
He tried to explain it to me. His father damn sure wasn’t as interested in money as he himself was. Part of the trouble was that his dad felt he had a mission to perform in a small town. Mission, hell! Did I think for one minute he’d slave long hours at the typewriter, if there weren’t any money in it? If there weren’t always the chance and the hope he’d make bigger money?
He looked boyish then, and I felt sorry for him. “You can’t fool me,” I said. “You love sitting in there at the typewriter and shouting fantastic stories to the top of your voice. You were born to write. It’s the only thing you want to do.”
He smiled, and I could see he was beginning to relax. “You’re right. You’re damn right. I wouldn’t spend an hour doing anything else. Hack that I am.
“You’re no hack.” I shrugged my shoulders. “You’ll write that novel some day — the one even the critics are going to like — the one about Texas you’re always talking about. It’ll bring you fame and prestige as well as money.”
He laughed. “I wish I could be as sure of it as you seem to be…” – pg. 195
The good thing about seeing Bob tonight was that he was in just as good a mood as I was. He was exuberant. Vital. Interested in talking. A yarn he was working on had gone right. “They don’t always do that,” he said, enthusiastically, “but, sometimes, like this one, they write themselves without any effort on my part. A western.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Did you ever read any of Ring Lardner’s baseball stories?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” Bob said, “what he did for the baseball players ought to be done for the American cowboy. It would be very different, of course, as to content. There should be yarns about a cowboy who ain’t just riding the range. One who’s big, dumb, and helpful to settlers moving in, depending on the kind of help they need. The cowboy had his lighter moments; his fun; sometimes bustin’ up a whole village was fun.”
We talked about cowboys. Then Bob volunteered that he wasn’t through writing Conan stories. I was sorry about that, for I don’t care much for Conan, what little I’ve scanned through.
Bob said he had an idea for a Conan yarn that was about to jell. Hadn’t got to the place where he was ready to write it. All he’d done so far was make a few notes, put it aside to let it lie there in his subconscious till it was fully built up.
“What’s this one about?” I asked.
“I think this time I’m going to make it one of the sexiest, goriest yarns I’ve ever written. I don’t think you’d care for it.”
“Not if it’s gory.” I looked at him a little puzzled. “What do you mean ‘sexy stories?’” “My God. My Conan yarns are filled with sex.”
The thought passed through my mind that sex in stories was a peculiar subject for a young man and woman to be discussing. However, I put it aside. After all, for heaven’s sake, here we are in the year of our Lord, 1935, and we know a few things about life. We know there’s been a lot of sex around in the last five thousand years of civilization, and so I suppose it doesn’t hurt to talk about it as it is in stories. But I couldn’t see that the Conan yarns Bob had brought me to read had any sex in them. Gore, yes. Sex, no.
“You have sex in the Conan yarns?” I said unbelievingly.
“Hell, yes. That’s what he did — drinking, whoring, fighting. What else was there in life?”
I thought of a story he’d brought me a couple of months ago. I couldn’t think of the name of it, and I hadn’t read it closely. If he got technical and asked me what was in it, I wouldn’t be able to tell him. About the only thing I remembered was there’d been a naked woman in it.
“I don’t see anything sexy about a naked woman dancing around on a ship.”
“You don’t? For God’s sake!” Bob barked the words out.
“No,” I said, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing.
He took an audible breath. “My God, she danced the mating dance. What could be more sexy?”
“I thought she was crazy,” I said. “There she was captain of a pirate ship, and running around naked. Naked in front of all those slaves or whatever you call them-soldiers, sailors. Anyway, those black men around her.”
Question his story and Bob becomes belligerent. “What you don’t understand was they were black.”
“All eunuchs, I suppose,” I said. That struck me as being so funny I began to laugh and couldn’t stop.
Bob seemed stunned at first. He said that in such a situation the black slaves thought of the girl as a goddess. He explained, emphatically, that when people were dedicated to a particular belief, the belief makes the impossible normal.
“What do you think would be a sexy story?” He asked. “If you don’t think naked women are sexy, what would be? Would a naked man be sexy?”
I pride myself that I can keep my mouth shut when I have to. I wondered what Mrs. Howard would say to a question like that. It occurred to me what she would answer, and so I folded my hands in my lap, drew my lips in a pious line, and said sweetly, “I would turn my head and look the other way.”
Bob whirled and looked at me so quickly, I felt as though the car might leave the road. Did I imitate his mother so perfectly? I have imitated someone before and other people knew who it was. I decided to drop the imitation then and there.
“You probably would,” Bob grunted. He gave his attention to his driving. “Go on. Tell me what you’d consider a sexy story.”
– pgs. 200-202
“You waste a lot of time copying conversations, I think,” he said. “I don’t mean to be giving you advice, but it seems to me while you’re writing down conversations you have had, you could use them just as a basis for a yarn. What conversations have you been writing down this time?”
“One I had with Nat not long ago. It would be absolutely perfect as the beginning for a one-act play.”
“At times, I’ve written down things friends have said,” Bob admitted. “I may have used something similar in a yarn, but I doubt very seriously that you can take a real life conversation and transcribe it directly into a yarn.”
[...] Bob grinned. “You may be right. You make it sound right; but it wouldn’t work for me. What kind of story would you use this conversation in?”
– pg. 202-203
Francis Bacon wrote essays and scientific stuff. I’ve read some of his essays. I think they’re great essays, but I can’t see them being turned into plays by Shakespeare.”
“Now, girl,” Bob said, getting enthusiastic, “that’s where you’re wrong. The thinking in those essays could very well have been in Shakespeare’s plays. Read Hamlet. In it, you get something that was bothering the Elizabethans. Bacon especially. They still held to the old belief in blood revenge. You kill my father, and I’ll kill your father.”
Bob was excited enough to gesture with his hand. I watched him, amused, hoping he wouldn’t take both hands off the steering wheel at once.
“Another idea was growing too, the idea of the responsibility of the State.” He settled himself and began again. “Can’t you just see those old Elizabethans sitting around talking, trying to decide whether revenge should be done by the next of kin or by the State? Bacon was especially interested in things like that. That’s why he wrote his essay on revenge.”
“You’re crazy,” I said, trying to remember just what Bacon’s essay on revenge had been about.
“You read that essay and then read Hamlet, ” Bob said. “See if you don’t think that was one of Hamlet’s problems.”
— pg. 204
“Baloney,” I said scornfully. “Let me tell you what’s going to happen to all these things you’re writing. Someday, people will begin taking one of your stories apart. Like the one you say is coming out in Weird Tales-the one you like about the Picts–” “Yeah,” Bob said. “The triumph of a dog and the barbarian.”
“Someday, some biographer will come along, and when he reads that story, he’ll say, ‘Who was this Robert E. Howard? He couldn’t have written these stories. Why he was not college bred! Remember, when he went to Howard Payne, all he did was sit around writing yarns, trying to break into Weird Tales. He didn’t even try to get a college degree! But isn’t it written somewhere that he dated a school teacher who dreamed of being a writer?”‘ Bob was listening with a broad grin on his face.
“He’ll say: ‘That school teacher wrote those yarns, every single one of them. Wrote ‘em and didn’t have nightmares at all.”‘ “By God, you may have it right.” Bob ran his fingers through his hair. “I wouldn’t be a damn bit surprised. Trouble is they won’t know that the school teacher only wanted to write things that are all sweetness and light. Nobody has any trouble. Nobody has a hard time. Everything works out. ” — pg. 205
“The art of storytelling,” Bob said, “is knowing which is the end and which is the beginning.”
— pg. 208
Bob shook his head, laughing. “I don’t know whether you’re the dumbest or the most courageous girl I’ve ever seen. But in a fair fight, you’d probably get the best of an old cowboy friend of mine-Breckenridge Elkins.” He laughed jovially. “It’s true, you know, the female of the species is more deadly than the male. But I guess she’s also the most forgiving.”
– pg. 222
He told me about a story that he had either written, or was going to write. It sounded better than a Conan story to me. Alexander the Great had established colonies in the territory he conquered. As he had marched through the territory, capturing it, he established Greek cities and kingdoms which were to be the bearers of Greek art, culture, and civilization in the conquered territories.
Bob thought that if one of those old Greek cities had somehow lasted to the present time and maintained its Greek language and customs, it would make a “hell of a yarn.” It interested me because I’d read a short novel, “The Aspern Papers” by Henry James, in which there were lost letters. A lost city, I thought, might be even better.
One thing worries me about Bob’s writing. He hasn’t started his novel about Texas he wants to write. The reason, he says, is that the right Texan hasn’t come along yet. Another thing, too, he has to pound out yarns fast in order to make a living.
Almost every time I’m with him, Bob gets enthusiastic about the early days of Texas when men came searching for lost gold mines. Gold mines, some of which, Bob insists, had to be near San Saba or somewhere in that territory; some, maybe as far south as Guadalupe, and there, now, that is real country for you!
– pg. 223
He seemed preoccupied with the end of civilization. He talked at length about the story that’s coming out in Weird Tales, the one he likes so much. He predicted that civilizations, as he had written, would rise and fall; and once again the barbarian would triumph.
“You see,” he said, warming to his subject, “that part of man which is part barbarian and untamed will never die.” He whirled and looked at me. “Throughout every vicissitude of time, the barbarian survives; civilized man forgets how to survive. There will always be the triumph of the barbarian over civilized man.”
— pgs. 223-224
When I tried to encourage the church attendance, he wondered if he could be a writer and live like that.
“Of course, you could,” I said emphatically. “You finish stories and go places before you start a new one.”
He shook his head. “At a cent a word and less, it takes so damn many words to buy food for the table.”
– pg. 224
He also wanted to ride down toward the Brook Smith community, because he’d heard “some pretty important things happened there … things important to hack writers.”
When we walked out on the porch, Bob stopped and listened. Mammy was in the back yard singing an old song she had sung when she was a girl: “Barbara Allen.” Bob listened, smiling. Her song, he said, was a favorite of his, because he’d heard it as a child. I told him I liked another one of the Alabama hill country songs she sang: “Lord Thomas’s Wedding.”
Bob was so interested, I told him those old English and Scottish ballads still hadn’t been written down when Mammy was a girl, though I supposed they were by now. At the time she learned them, they were still handed down by word of mouth by descendants of English and Scottish people.
Bob spent the next hour talking about them, wanting me to write them down exactly as Mammy sang them. But he was especially interested in the old ghost and witch stories she told. Those were a gold mine, he thought. Another reason those witch stories interested him was that he believed such myths were based upon facts and real happenings.
All that led eventually to a discussion of the folk tales and ghost stories of the early days of Texas. Those were great days, he said, why even preachers carried guns as they traveled to church on Sunday mornings. They leaned their guns against the pulpits and preached against killing. “It wasn’t a sin to shoot Indians.” He laughed.
As I listened to Texas history and ghost stories, and to the exploits of “Francis X” in Afghanistan, I kept thinking of all the things that worried me this summer.
– pg. 226
When I listened to what Bob was saying, he was telling me how sorry he was that he forgot to bring me a copy of the Weird Tales story he likes so much, but he was writing another one, and when it comes out, he really wants me to read it! Now, there, girl! There’s a story for you! But from now on, he hoped to devote his time to westerns, maybe a few historical yarns, and he sure wanted to get to that Texas novel he keeps researching!
– pg. 227
Yes, Kline’s still my agent, and I’m doing a little business with a fellow named Kofoed, of Philadelphia, former editor of Fight Stories, and now editor of Day Book, who does a little agenting for me on the side, much to Kline’s disgust, I fear. The tales of Sam Walser (a rugged, upright, forthright, typical American name, even if the original was a Dane from Skaggerack) appear-or will appear when they start publishing them-in a magazine called Spicy Adventure Stories. They pay one cent a word, on acceptance, and report fairly promptly. I’ve sold them four yarns so far, and fondly hope to sell regularly, if they ever start publishing my stuff and get a reaction from the readers, who, I feel, are cultured and scholarly gentlemen, who wax enthusiastic over meritous artistic efforts, he remarked with characteristic modesty. The main handicap is the necessity of keeping the wordage down-they take nothing over 5500 words, this being their limit not only for Spicy Adventures, but also for Spicy Mysteries and Spicy Detectives, which I hope to make also. A nice balance must be maintained the stuff must be hot enough to make the readers bat their eyes, but not too hot to get the censors on them. They have some definite taboos. No degeneracy, for instance. No sadism or masochism. Though extremely fond of almost-nude ladies, they prefer her to retain some garment ordinarily-like a coyly revealing chemise.
However this taboo isn’t iron-clad, for I’ve violated it in nearly every story I’ve sold them. I’ve found a good formula is to strip the heroine gradually-she loses part of her clothes in one episode, some more in the next, and so on until the climax finds her in a state of tantalizing innocence. Certain words are taboo, also, though up to a certain point considerable frankness in discussing the female anatomy is allowed. The hero should be an American, and the action should take place in some exotic clime. I’ve laid my yarns in the South Seas, in Tebessa in Algeria, in Shanghai, and in Singapore. Laid one yarn in Kentucky but they said it was too hot for them to handle. The hero doesn’t have to be a model of virtue. In fact, a favorite formula is for the hero to accomplish what only the villain attempts in conventional yarns. My character is Wild Bill Clanton, a pirate, gun-runner, smuggler, a pearl-thief and slaver, and carefully avoids all moral scruples in his dealings with the ladies. These magazines were the object of a rather bitter attack in the Author & Journalist not long ago, but some of the most prominent writers rose up and fought back lustily, notably my friend E. Hoffman Price, who has been making a good living off them for some time.
If you’d like to try a rap at it, there’s nothing to keep you from it. While the magazines cater mainly to masculine readers, I don’t think there’s any objection or prejudice against women writers. Indeed, I have an idea the editor might like to see some yarns from the feminine viewpoint, providing they were sufficiently lusty and bawdy. Plots should be rather complicated, action fast moving. The handicaps of stories that are short are obvious. Little space for character development or for subtle unfolding of plots; the narration must be dynamic, clear-cut, vivid. Cynicism and humor have their place, but not too much humor. It isn’t always necessary for the hero to rush in and save the heroine’s virtue at the proper moment. Indeed, in most of my yarns, the heroine’s virtue is in more danger from the hero than from anybody else. Price uses a good formula-triumph of the villain, forcibly, over the heroine, and triumph, in turn of the hero over the villain, generally by shooting the hell out of him.
This is a brief sketch, of course, but enough to give you a general idea of the requirements of the Trojan Publishing Company, whose magazines, I might add, though considered somewhat as outlaws in the more conventional circles, seem to be prospering.
– pgs. 262-263 from a letter by Robert E. Howard to Novalyne Price-Ellis, Cross Plains, Texas, February 14, 1936.
From the way he talks, he’s making a good many sales to Argosy, sales to Action Stories, but the thing that seems to upset him is that Weird Tales still owes him about a thousand dollars and doesn’t pay.
He appreciates Wright for giving him a start in selling stories, but sometimes he calls Wright a two-bit editor; a man who can’t recognize anything good; a dyspeptic; a small man who gags at a gnat and swallows a camel. Although he uses such barbed epithets, he really doesn’t mean to be malicious.
The trouble with Wright (I take it) is that he seems very concerned with what the readers say or write. He doesn’t take into consideration that readers are a fickle lot. “I lose readers sometimes,” Bob said. “I admit that. But, damn it, I always gain them back or get new ones. Wright forgets that. It’s a damn losing battle.”
– pg. 278
[...] he talked about the crash of his career, and I said it seemed to me he was making sales, some to new markets too.
At that, he became impatient. “Your career falls in ruins when you go on producing, knowing the well is running dry,” he said loudly. “How much more time you have to produce before it dries up, you don’t know. You’ve got to watch that, Novalyne, when you start writing full time.”
[...] “You start in to write,” he said one day, “and, at first, you write day and night. Many days, eighteen hours. Sometimes, if things are going right, you may write twenty-four. But the constant production finally gets you. If you try to settle down to eight to ten hours a day steadily, if you devote your whole life to breaking into the writing game, you should be mighty careful that you don’t burn yourself out before you write the big book.”
– pg. 279
As much as Bob hates people who write psychological stories, I brought up Henry James, the novelist, William James’ brother.
— pg. 279
“One of our goats is bigger than the other one,” he said. “I have to watch her closely. She won’t let the little one eat. She gobbles up most of her food, then moves over and runs the little one off and begins on her food. It’s the nature of animals to dominate the ones they can. I understand that. Human beings are the same way. They dominate the ones they can dominate. Wright won’t pay me what he owes me, because he’s got the upper hand. His salary is assured; therefore, I can work my guts out, and it doesn’t mean a damn to him. He’s the dominant one. It’s the animal in him. We’re one … man and animals.”
— pg. 281
“Last fall, I stood on that porch, leaned against one of the posts and thought about the way you had written up that witch story Mammy tells.”
He shifted his weight and leaned, half-sitting, on the cement slab around the cistern. “This is beautiful country, Novalyne, and there are yarns here waiting to be written. You’ve lived here all your life. Why don’t you write about it? You ought to, you know. A person has to write about the things he knows, even when he puts the action in a foreign country.”
Quickly, I tried to explain that my stories were laid in this country. He shook his head. “They’re not laid anywhere.”
I didn’t answer.
We heard a cow bell a little distance from us, and both of us turned our faces in that direction and waited. It didn’t seem to come any closer.
“You could write about people who lived in this old house,” Bob said earnestly. “You’ve seen it, walked through it, stood on the porch and looked into the same trees and yard some other young woman looked into. You know this house because you’ve known others like it.”
He stooped to pick up a little blue flower, twirled it a moment and then threw it down. “If you have to have a love story, can you imagine getting a drink from one of the buckets on that shelf? Suppose you were a very lonely, beautiful girl, and you came out here to get a drink. While you were drinking, you saw a handsome Indian brave come out of the trees there. Everything in your experience is against such a man-woman relationship. What you decided to do about the Indian would be the yarn you’d write.”
— pg. 286
He was silent a minute; then he began to talk of the different people who may have lived here. One, a big, dumb cowboy, so strong he could pull up a young oak by the roots. Bob talked, too, of the real problems men probably faced here. Disputes over land and water rights. Disputes over cattle. Feuds worse than those of the Hatfields and the McCoys. In all the stories he talked about, there was fighting and killing and one man getting the best of a dozen others.
Finally, I interrupted him. “Bob, you keep talking about stories I might write. What about you? Why don’t you write all these things you’re telling me to?”
He walked impatiently away from the cistern. “I can’t write anything anymore,” he said harshly. “No time. Never any time. I get started; I have to stop.”
He began to pace up and down the yard, rubbing a hand across his forehead. “I’m burned out. You pound out yarn after yarn — sometimes ten or twelve thousand words a day. You work your damn guts out. Finally, you know you’re burning out — that the time is coming fast when there won’t be anything left. Nothing at all.”
– pg. 287
“This country is full of yarns — this house — everywhere–” He spread his arms. “I see them, but— No time. They’re everywhere just waiting to be written. You’ve always talked about writing, and you’ve asked for help. I’m a damn fool, I reckon, but I thought maybe if I pointed some of the things out, you might— Well, hell!”
– pg. 287
Bob shook his head. He stopped his pacing and walked to the opposite end of the porch from me. He put one foot on the porch and leaned his arms on his knees. “Novalyne, you’ve lived through a lot of problems. You know them first hand, problems such as the people who lived here faced, but in your yarns, your girl never faces real problems. They’re just– Well, hell, just nice.”
“Why do I get little notes or messages on my stories?” I asked. “Are editors just mean? Do they just pay you nice compliments to make you think you’re getting somewhere?”
Bob laughed shortly. “Editors can be lousy, all right, but I think they write little messages to encourage someone they think may eventually make it. I think, myself, you do have talent.”
I sighed and stared into the trees.
“I don’t mean to criticize you,” he said, “but that yarn about witches you gave me to read last spring didn’t sound as full of guts and blood as it did when Mammy told it to me. Your story had a lot of good things in it; the first page was real good. It–” “I learned that from you,” I said. “I think your stories are just great the way you begin them.”
— pg. 288
Bob shook his head. “I’m no authority on slick magazines.”
“You sell what you write. I get notes. I’ve sent that story off before and the editor wrote me a note and said, ‘You might tighten.’ I didn’t know what he meant.”
Bob nodded. “I think he meant it was too long for his magazine, too long and too rambling. After the first page, you spent the next ten— I counted them— explaining a good beginning. Leave out those ten pages and it would cut the yarn down by about twenty-five hundred words. Give readers a lot of action and explain only as much as you absolutely have to.”
I sat for a minute, thinking of the Conan story Bob had liked so much. Funny, his main character in that story wasn’t Conan. Another fellow in trouble was the hero. You didn’t have time to get bored.
“Another thing,” he went on. “Your yarns never have any real conflict. Your girl comes from a good home; everybody loves her; everything’s pleasant. She is happy, and, if she wants something, she gets it.”
I took a deep breath. He was right. Editors sometimes called my plots thin.
Bob turned suddenly to face me. “What about you, the unwanted child? At least, you think your dad left home because he didn’t love you. You felt your stepfather’s people put up with you as a sort of necessary evil. You said they wanted your mother to give you away-to your grandmother. Why don’t you write about girls with problems like that?”
“I can’t. It hurts too bad.”
Bob laughed and got up from where he was sitting and walked about the yard, talking, “All of us hurt. We love. We hate. We win. We lose. We have more enemies than friends. Friends become enemies. We see our parents grow old, become sick and suffer pain. When you write about a girl who doesn’t have anymore trouble than which man to choose or which dress to wear, then you’re writing about something that never was. People don’t want to read yarns like that. Hell. Nothing goes right in real life. You try to help somebody and get kicked in the teeth for your pains. With some of us things don’t ever go right.”
He paused and looked at me. “When I saw this house, I thought of some of the yarns you write, and I thought I’d try to help someway. Life out here wasn’t all sweetness and light. Gunmen roamed the countryside. The weather. Every damn thing you can think of happened to them. But it’s the blood and guts life itself is made of. Ready to go?”
– pg. 289
His real feelings came out. He’d been able to sell Argosy a couple of yarns, and he had two or three other western heroes going to other magazines. There he was, trying to write and getting interrupted every few minutes! It wasn’t, he said, that he didn’t want to do whatever his mother needed. She came first in his life, but those people they’d hired to help out couldn’t turn around without coming in and asking him how to do it. He glared accusingly at me, as if I’d hired them and sent them there.
He said he didn’t want to try to write anything but westerns, nowadays, which he guessed would please me. But he was going absolutely crazy the way people interrupted him. His mother never called him in the middle of a scene he was just getting right. She understood that a man has to be left strictly alone when he’s trying to write.
– pgs. 291-292
For a moment it seemed to help Bob to find someone who knew how badly he wanted to strangle people who interrupted him. He talked about them and about the rest of the world-damn fools who thought sitting down at the typewriter and pounding your guts out was not the kind of job a man ought to work at. They thought a man ought to get a job!
— pg. 292
He thought, since I was so close to the teaching situation which I was trying to write about, too involved with Nat and the students, it might be a good idea to lay the ground work for the novel and perhaps dozens of other stories about school teachers in small Texas towns. I could plan to write them later.
He suggested that instead of trying for a real town I think of a number of towns, study them, read about them, read their histories, then create a town that was a composite of several towns. I would need to write about the people in the town-write the histories of several families. Write the story of the main character from the time of her birth, give her a real background and family, see her faults, her strengths and her weaknesses. Go on with my diaries of things that happened at school, not only this one but at others where I might teach, keep those records for several years. At that time, I’d be able to write a dozen novels. I also needed to write backgrounds of teachers with whom my main character was involved.
That made sense to me. He had told me of his doing something similar to that before he began his Conan yarns. He wrote about the land where Conan lived, the age in which he lived and the people he’d known, the sorcerers he’d met.
– pgs. 292-293
“I can’t say much for Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, ” he said shortly. “It’s not worth a damn. I don’t think you’ve got the idea at all. I know I’m a damn fool for making any suggestions about your writing or anybody else’s. I know, when I stop to think, that every person has to work out his own way of doings things. Your way with diaries and scraps of conversation, and character descriptions is probably as good as any. Just forget what I said. I’ll keep my mouth shut in the future.”
– pg. 293
I was riding down a highway between Coleman and Cross Plains, listening to Bob talking enthusiastically about the things a yarn needs to make it go. I could hear his voice, “If you want other people to like your main character, you have to like him. When he bleeds, you bleed.”
– pg. 312
About the middle of May, he had begun to feel pretty good about his markets. “Are you going to try the slicks?” I asked, glad of his progress, glad to see some of the old enthusiasm and exuberance.
He laughed and shook his head. “Naw, probably not. Too many damn sophisticates go for those. My cowherder is just an ordinary, everyday sort of guy. ” I doubted that. “What about your novel about the early days of Texas?” I asked.
He sighed and shook his head. “Funny thing about that. I’ve got a hundred yarns about those adventurers who came looking for gold, but most of them are still in my head. They go away when I try to tie them down.”
– pg. 316
Not even my cousin Enid could believe that an ordinary looking man, like Bob, could write literature, and Bob didn’t give her a chance to find out where she was wrong. His actions precluded that. But there were others in Cross Plains who knew Dr. Howard and the family, and who could have been proud of Bob as a writer if he had not acted like an Ervin or that Celtic hero of his who began the line.
– pg. 316